Adventure TravelEdition 52

To Nepal via China & Tibet

Hi, Dan the travelin’ man here again.

During my 20 years of providing unique travel solutions to literally hundreds of customers, I have also taken many journeys myself – sometimes escorting a group and sometimes just by myself! I love the sense of discovery when travelling to places like China with in-your-face history all around you, or Japan with such incredible scenery. The SE Asia destinations of Vietnam, Burma (I really love Burma), Cambodia and Laos have their own special attractions to me – especially as I served with the RAAF in this region during the Vietnam war – it is so much nicer to go there now! There is nothing quite like an encounter with the Orang-u-tans in their rapidly shrinking natural habitat in the jungles of Borneo and India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are also the source of great travel experiences for me.

Perhaps I will have a chance to write about some of these stories later, but today, I want to share with you a journey I took from China through Tibet into Nepal. This particular trip, taken several years ago now, has always been a strong favourite of mine.

This story starts in Shanghai – bidding farewell to a party of about 40 people from the Melbourne Football Club – I had been trusted with organising the first visit to China by an AFL team and it was a real privilege to look after these arrangements for this famous club.

Having got them away safely, I looked forward to something I had wanted to try for myself since the incredible Qinghai-Tibet high altitude rail opened to tourism. Departing Shanghai early the next morning, a comfortable flight had me arriving mid morning in Lanzhou on the banks of the Yellow River in North West China which, in spite of its heavy industry background, is a surprisingly interesting city. But having been previously, I was here simply as it is a very convenient place to board what I believe to be one of the world’s truly unique train experiences and a new gateway to the fascinations of Tibet.

Boarding was conducting very efficiently and the train departed right on time. I soon found that instead of sharing a crowded space as expected, I had private use of a four berth sleeper – bonus! Not that I am against sharing – you do gain a lot when you interact with the locals of the country you are visiting – but on this trip I was pleased to have the space to myself and be free to take unhindered views from the large picture windows. Whilst you can board this train from several other places in China such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Xian, I like to save time by joining in Lanzhou or Xining as in just a short afternoon after boarding, it is time to sleep comfortably whilst travelling across perhaps less interesting landscapes. To wake up in the morning (with a pretty unappetising brekky in the dining car I might add) with the rising sun illuminating incredibly barren but beautiful landscapes at the commencement of the climb up the escarpment to the Tibet plateau is simply amazing – my pictures fail to do it justice!

The spectacular scenery continues to unfold – mile after mile as the train climbs higher and higher, passing through some of the longest tunnels in the world and across frozen tundra – this line also has the highest rail section in the world at the Tanggula Pass with an elevation of just under 5,100 metres! The scenery is absolutely amazing all the way into Lhasa which is reached late morning. Disembarking and completing arrival processes is pretty simple and I soon located the guide and driver I had contracted for my 4WD drive trip across the roof of the world. Having been to Lhasa before with small groups, this time, I elected to just stay overnight. The weather was simply brilliant so I spent the afternoon at the Potala Palace.

Up early and the first day is an easy 270 k’s on made roads to Gyantse. Along the way are sweeping vistas of mountains and glaciers. An early stop to enjoy views of the sacred lake of Yamdrok Yumsto – a loan vendor is standing with his decorated yak awaiting tourists to arrive. The Gyantse Hotel, as are most on this run across Tibet, is very basic but clean and the staff are very welcoming. This afternoon, my guide was delighted to show me the highlights of this once fortress town – Gyantse has an incredible history of Tibetan Buddhist teaching which continues to today. Continuing on, we made overnight stops at Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, and Shegar before proceeding to Rongbuk where stove heated rooms proved very comfortable in the basic surrounds of the world’s highest monastery. The next day, passing many trekkers who were setting out for the hard slog ahead, we drove out to Everest Base Camp. Stark and barren, this day at EBC proved a huge disappointment as cloud cover completely wiped out any of the fabulous views of Everest that it is noted for. The stove heated room and hospitality back at Ronbuk Monastery soon dispelled the disappointment of the day and there was the promise of views from the high passes yet to be travelled.

Departing after a hearty breakfast, we passed through Shegar and continued on towards Nepal – stopping at Gyantse La – the highest paved road pass in the world at over 5,200 metres (17,000 feet!). Fortunately, the clouds from the previous day had completely cleared revealing simply breathtaking views, even of the distant Mt Everest! Surprisingly it was quite mild in the early October sunshine and the air quality was incredibly clear – even the guide and driver seemed to revel at being here at this time (and I am sure they have passed through many times before today). After time to enjoy the moment and trying to capture the rapturous views on camera, we started the long down-hill journey towards Zhangmu – the last Chinese outpost and border control. Beyond this point, the road deteriorated severely making the choice of a modern Toyota 4WD clearly justified as we descended from the heights of the Tibetan plateau down what can only be described as an horrendously bad road – local people hired to wave a red or green flag as you approached every blind corner – red if the road just ahead was already taken by one of the many Tata lorries we encountered – or green if the road was at least clear to the next blind bend and another set of flags. We completed this descent safely and arrived amongst endless convoys of trucks that seemingly filled the narrow streets of Zhangmu, for the last night in Tibet.

The next morning, Chinese efficiency was very evident as I completed exit border procedures and farewelled my guide and driver. I passed through the final gate from Tibet and entered a chaotic scene – the two hundred metres or so between Tibet and the Nepali border gate was jammed with Tata trucks and hundreds of Nepali workers on foot with highly valued work permits waiting to enter Zhangmu – it was a frenetic scene forever etched in my memory. Suddenly my large bag that I was dragging behind me was hoisted to the shoulder of a stranger who then disappeared downhill towards the Nepali border – alarmed I started to follow him through the chaos around me when a voice to my side said ‘Namaste! Don’t worry – he’s one of my men!’ This was the welcoming voice of Kumar Basnet – my Nepali friend and operator for all I do for my clients in Nepal – but that is another story.


As you read this story, you may be wondering why this is included in an adventure focused magazine such as this. I am well able to organise the treks, motor bike tours and other more traditionally considered ‘adventure’ tours for you but to me, all travel is an adventure as you explore new places and new experiences. I have the background, experience and wide contacts network to combine ‘adventure’ with perhaps more ‘traditional’ touring – a combination that offers both excitement and comfort. If such a concept appeals to you, please contact me to start the ball rolling on your next adventure. Don’t forget to mention this magazine when you contact me.

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